A Few Bookish Questions With Erik Rostad

Since 2017, Erik has been conducting a public reading project called Books of Titans. From his about page:

“I continue to set a yearly reading list in advance and move through the list one book at a time. I’ve completed books I’ve wanted to read for many years and have been amazed at what I’ve discovered.

This project is my experiment to figure out the best ways to read more and retain what I learn. I try different approaches to find out what works best for me. I’m flexible on the methods but always want to challenge myself to read and learn more. I find such delight in reading and making connections between a variety of types of books.”

I don’t remember how I found Erik, but it seems that readers always find readers. He was kind enough to answer a few bookish questions for me.

1. On your website you mention rediscovering your love of reading during college. What were a few books that you sucked you in and made you realize that reading could be fun again and not just a school assignment? 

Right before college, I read a book that stated the reason the Hero’s Journey was found across so many cultures, myths, and stories was because it pointed to one true story. The other stories were all derivatives. That idea intrigued me enough to want to begin reading these “derivative” works of literature to discover the connection points to the true story.

I took that task to heart and started reading Crime and Punishment. I expected it to be boring and tedious, but instead it was thrilling and addictive. I then moved on to The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick and couldn’t put them down. Those were really the foundational books that made me realize reading could be fun again.

2. The following quote from Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading is one of my favorites on the philosophy of reading: 

“Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.”

Any immediate thoughts on what Jacobs says here? Do you find your brain overwhelmed and craving fluff now and then?

One of the biggest surprises for my reading project is that I’m not overwhelmed. In 2017, I decided to start reading 52 books a year, or roughly one a week. My expectation was that I would be completely overwhelmed, but what happened instead is that I started seeing similar ideas across a wide variety of genres, styles, and time periods in the books I was reading. It helped hone my thinking and identify the truly important ideas instead of inundating my brain.

Another reason for not being overwhelmed is that I only read one book at a time. In the past, I would read 4 or 5 simultaneously, but I found that I couldn’t recall what idea came from what book, especially when they were along similar topics. When I’m reading a book now, I’m solely focused on that book.

As for Jacob’s quote, I agree that one of the most important practices for new readers is to “read what gives you delight” instead of what others say you should read. As for the Great Books, next year I will be transitioning my reading project into a project to read 200 of the Great Books by the year 2030. I will no longer stick to reading 52 books a year but will have enough margin to add “fluff” if the intellectual load gets too demanding. But the focus will be on the Great Books.

3. One of my regular questions is “What are you reading now and what's next on your list?” That's moot since you post your reading list online! Do you make any room for reading at whim? Are there things you're reading that aren't documented in your project? 

This is one of the most common questions I get about the reading project. I have a practice of setting my reading list a year in advance. I actually already have my 2022 reading list chosen and announced. But I’ve been thinking about these books for a year or more, so by the time they make it to my list, they have been thoroughly vetted. As a result, there have been very few books I’ve wanted to quit. I also try to stick to my reading list and the set order as best as I can.

With that said, I have made a few changes to my reading list this year (so I do allow for a few changes). For starters, this year is my year to read through book series. So, on my list are Narnia, Caro’s LBJ series, the Lord of the Rings, Shelby Foote’s Civil War series, Harry Potter, and others. When I make my yearly reading list, I divide the total number of pages by 365 days to find out how many pages I need to read per day to get through my list. I’ve been ahead for most of this year, so I’ve added four other books to my original list and also changed the order due to the release date on some of the books.

In general, if there is a book I want to read, I’ll add it to a future year’s reading list. I find this to be a good practice as it gives a book some time to age. Many of the new books are marketed very well but don’t last past the year. By pushing new books out at least a year, I avoid a lot of those books that I probably wouldn’t enjoy.

There are a few books each year I’ll read for work that I won’t document as part of the reading project.

4. What have been the most surprising books or authors you've discovered in this journey? Maybe something you weren't looking forward to and really enjoyed (or perhaps the opposite of that!).

Two come to mind.

I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in 2017, my first year of this reading project. I absolutely hated it and wished I had never read it. Then, in 2020, I decided to give it a second try. It was a completely different experience and the book amazed me. It surprised me to have such a different reaction to a book.

In 2020, I also read The Great Gatsby for the second time in my life. The first time was during high school and I hated it. My second reading was a much different experience, mostly because of life experience. So, I guess this was more of a rediscovery.

5. Do you have any all-time favorite books that have particularly shaped your life and thinking? Books you think about a lot and/or return to again and again?

The Bible has been foundational in my life and in this reading project. I’m trying to find Truth in the world’s best books. I consider Man’s Search for Meaning to be the best and most important book I’ve read for this project. The Gulag Archipelago has also been foundational. Frederick Douglass absolutely fascinates me, whether books by him or about him. And Robert Caro impacted me so much that I read every single one of his books this year after just planning on reading the LBJ series.